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Proboscises - No smell too far

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We generally take our senses for granted. I sometimes hear of people admonished to use “some common sense”. But common is exactly that, common, and lovers of wine can hardly be referred to as “common”. Hence we shall hastily cast this additional sense aside.

I would like to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Anorak. They arrive at a casual dinner with friends with (at least) a bottle of wine, neatly wrapped in a brown paper bag or in a special-purpose crocheted bottle-stocking. With glee in their eyes they cannot wait to get past the introductory pleasantries of All Black victories, the strength of the Kiwi Dollar and the price of coffee on Ponsonby Road before sticking their proboscises deeply into their glasses of wine and nodding knowingly. Some of you will now also be nodding. You know who they are – although they may not know who they are.

But, let us not be too hasty in denigrating our wet-weather-gear friends. They are indulging in the most basic of pleasures – sensing! For many of us, wine is a social lubricant but it can be so much more.

Smell is arguably more important than taste or touch. Taste is determined 90% by smell. Have you tried to differentiate between white and red wine while blindfolded with your nose clamped shut? The word proboscis is derived from the Latin/Greek pro = before and Greek boskis = to feed, a natural evolution of a word and smell being one of the best ways of checking on freshness of food.

As I grew up I was immersed in new smells and learned to describe them: roses, burning wood, gas, braais, peanut butter, napalm, pineapples, lion turds and so on. At some stage however, my literalisation of new smells slowed down. While I was noticing new odours, I could not necessarily describe them other than in general terms such as sweet, nice, offensive, neutral and so on.

Once I became involved in the wine industry though, things quickly changed. To be taken seriously I had to be able to nose a glass of wine and be able to wax lyrically about its contents. The key is not what I smelled but my vocabulary!

We do not all have to become wine gurus but, I believe, that we would all benefit from having an expanded smells vocabulary. There are fabulous tools available to assist us on this journey. The Aroma Wheel ( was developed by Dr. Ann Noble in the US. It segments aromas into groups (citrus, floral, musky spicy etc) and offers a vocabulary for odours within each group. It is so much easier to smell flavours when you have the descriptors in front of you or are discussing them with others. How often have you had the “Eureka” moment when someone mentions a flavour descriptor and the link between smell and smell memory is established!?

Being aware of fragrances and stopping to identify them is also a great boon to our ability to match flavours in food and matching wine and food. On a recent walk through the Tropical Biome at the Eden Project ( in Cornwall recently, I was confronted with a tall chest of drawers. The multitude of narrow and multicoloured drawers each contained a different spice. Nose lowered into drawer, deep sniff, distinct odours. But, if I had not recognised some of the spices by their colour or compositon/texture I am not sure that I would have been able to describe them. This is mainly through a lack of practice – I rarely cook. Try for some assistance.

Try this exercise with your friends (no anoraks necessary): buy a bottle each of three or four different red or white wine varieties. Pour a glass of each wine for each person and then smell and discuss. Use an aroma wheel and see whether you can come up with a list of 3-5 descriptors for each variety that you all agree on. Identifying these varieties in future will be that much easier! If this is something you wish to explore further, it may be worth investigating Le Nez du Vin. This set includes ampules of flavours and would make a good gift for the “person who has everything”. The 54 aroma set costs around $750 and $250 for 12.

Some say that fear can also be smelled. And I get the whiff of fear from the cork industry. Their fallible product impacts on our appreciation of the aroma of wine. In small doses it sucks away the scent and leaves a dull wine. At its worst, the culprit residing in some corks, TCA, leaves the pong of wet newspaper/dog hair/cardboard. No wonder that screwcaps are finding more and more favour around the world.

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